Several members of the Shinnecock Nation rallied outside Southampton Town Hall before a board meeting Tuesday night to reiterate a push for town legislation protecting the graves of their ancestors.
About a dozen demonstrators held signs saying “Stop the Desecration of Shinnecock Hills Today” and “Protect Shinnecock Graves,” and other messages.
“We are protesting the fact that no laws have been passed in the Town of Southampton to protect the unmarked burials of our Shinnecock ancestors within our ancestral territory,” said Rebecca Hill-Genia, the tribe’s grave protection warrior.
“No progress has been done for decades drafting legislation for grave protections,” she said at the noon rally before the scheduled 6 p.m. board meeting. “Many of our ancestral graves have been desecrated and destroyed and the Town of Southampton has not done what is right for the indigenous sacred sites and to protect the land from further desecration.”
The issue puts at loggerheads two formidable land-based interests in the town: the economics-driven high demand for what speculators and house hunters consider prime real estate in the Hamptons and the spiritual mission of the tribe to keep sacred and undisturbed their ancestors’ final resting places.
At one point, Hill-Genia had an exchange with Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who authored some of the legislation the tribe seeks.
She talked to him about the delay in the law’s passage, rejecting his reasoning that COVID-19 slowed the process.
“I wanted it passed as quick as possible,” Schneiderman said. “I’m not delaying for any reason other than the pandemic.”
Schneiderman said he didn’t want to put anyone’s life in danger as the state grappled with the disease.
In recent years the issue has become more prominent. In late February the town board agreed to purchase and preserve 3.3 acres for $2.2 million. The board had also scheduled public hearings with the intent of taking action to install other protections for the burial sites.
Hill-Genia countered Schneiderman’s claims, saying the issue predates the coronavirus outbreak.
“This has nothing to do with COVID,” she said, passing him copies of bills, including state legislation, dating back to 2006. “This is decades and decades of watching our ancestors’ graves be desecrated by the Town of Southampton. That’s what this is all about. This is not about right before COVID we put together this legislation. No. We put this legislation together for decades and decades and we’ve been ignored by the Town of Southampton and we’ve had to watch our graves being desecrated."
Among the stalled bills are one that would impose a six-month construction moratorium in certain areas of Shinnecock Hills and another establishing a protocol if an unmarked grave is discovered.
Hill-Genia said the town can still take action.
“Since we can’t turn back the hands of time here, we want them to now — right this second — pass these laws,” she said. “They can put a moratorium on all building in the Shinnecock Hills until these laws are passed. It is well within their power to impose this moratorium ASAP and we have asked them, before COVID hit … and then the COVID hit, so it seems like they had the perfect excuse to blow us off once again.”